I started hearing about OMON before I ever saw them. I'd only been in Moscow a few weeks when a bar debate erupted over the authenticity of a YouTube clip purporting to capture an OMON deathblow. During an arrest an OMON officer had unleashed a series of strikes that left his victim crumpled on the ground. Some said the person died of internal bleeding. Others doubted it. In any case, I made a mental note of the word: OMON.
I finally encountered OMONtsi at last month's Dissenter's March. They were on Tverskaya at dawn, milling around empty vans, manning water canon trucks, looking severe in their boots, berets, and urban blue camo. Later that morning, as the Pushkin Square McDonald's bustled with young police shipped in from the provinces and international camera crews getting ready for the day's action, OMON were nowhere to be seen in the lines for coffee and McMuffins. They just stood outside and watched. From the look of them, I wondered if their diet was restricted to raw rabbit meat, eggs, and growth hormone power shakes. "OMON doesn't do McDonald's." That could be one of the force's mottos, along with the official tag: "OMON knows no mercy."
And no they don't. Later that day OMON units rampaged through groups of peaceful protestors, including little old ladies, first at Pushkin and later at the police station where "former world chess champion Gary Kasparov" was briefly detained. (You can see exclusive footage of the latter on eXile TV, above.) Western journalists naturally led with this violence in their protest reports. Together with the jailing of Kasparov, OMON's thuggery was the perfect lead for the ultimate Putin's Fascist Russia story. It was OMON's global coming out party, even if few reports used their proper name.
It was in response to this bad press that the Interior Ministry decided to hold a media meet-and-greet at the OMON training camp last week. The idea was to demystify the organization and throw some light on its dark reputation, to showcase OMON as disciplined, professional and press friendly. They wanted to humanize the brutes.
At least this is what the Moscow press corps believed was the idea when it gathered outside the offices of RIA Novosti, the state press agency. As it turned out, the purpose of the event was anything but clear. When it was over OMON seemed darker, more dangerous, and more mystifying than ever. But no one could have suspected what lay in store as we boarded three buses for leafy Shchyolkovo, just east Moscow.
Even with a police escort, the late rush-hour traffic was awful. The old bus was crammed full, the windows were bolted and the ventilation system didn't work. It didn't help that the seats were cramped. At one point my legs were crossed so that my left foot came within a few inches of my neighbor, a large Russian man listening to an mp3 player.
"Eks-kyuze me," he said, removing an earphone. "But in zis kuntry, vee don't put feet on adder peoples like det."
His tone was harsh and pedantic and I wanted to tell him that in my country, we didn't blast shitty Russian pop when your neighbor was trying to read. But I just stared at him and said I was sorry, I didn't realize I was touching his leg. Which of course I wasn't. It is my least favorite type of Russian that gets Civilizational over an imaginary slight. The brief exchange put me in a sour mood that didn't lift until the fireworks started in Shchyolkovo.
If you saw any of the next-day press accounts of the OMON event, you know it was no normal press conference. It was a well-choreographed martial arts and machine gun extravaganza that left ears ringing and minds reeling. In the Guardian's laconic words, it was "at the odder end of the spectrum."
Or as we say in America, "at the pretty fucking awesome end of the spectrum." Upon arrival we were taken to a five-story building with its windows blown out. It was obviously a stage for practicing Beslan-style hostage scenarios, and judging from the results of Beslan, OMON could use the practice. Atop the roof was a unit of masked OMON, looking a lot like those iconic images of unofficial Palestinian Olympiads at Munich. They stared down at the sea of cameras and waited for the signal. They waited a long time. We all did. An hour passed before they finally fell over the edge and frogcrawled down the side of the building. They demonstrated a series of synchronized flips and then swung Spidey-style through the third floor windows, AK's blazing and concussion bombs rolling. Smoke poured out of the building and we were left to imagine how many hypothetical hostages survived the rescue. My guess is not many.
There was light applause. I thought the day had peaked and expected to be led to a conference room or something. But no, OMON was just getting started.
We were then directed to an asphalt exercise yard, where a 20-gun AK salute signaled the start of the real show. By salute I don't mean a single shot fired from each gun. This was an OMON salute, entire rainbow clips were emptied over our heads, Beirut-style. The air was still full of smoke when the techno kicked in. Loud, dark techno. Energized by the soundtrack, the officers paired off and sparred to the mock death in the middle of the yard. It was a blood-pumping blizzard of snapped necks, roundhouse kicks, pile drivers, body slams, and multiple redundant close-range AK and pistol blasts (they used blanks). Things took a sharper turn for the weird with the smashing of suspended jugs of water and flaming bricks. There was even a carnie trick: Knives were dropped onto the belly of a shirtless OMONet as he lay on a bed of cut metal and crushed glass.
Then another 20 clips were emptied over the heads of confused but secretly elated journalists. For the Western press at least, the day so far was not just a bizarre attempt at media handling, but a pornographic snapshot of the hottest babes in Putin's "increasingly authoritarian" state. The story wrote itself in gunpowder: Russia's infamous attack dogs, so recently unleashed on the country's fledgling democracy movement, today gathered the media to demonstrate their love of and skill at inflicting pain and death. Didn't OMON Major General Alexander Ivanin -- who MC'd the sparring by yelling into a mic over the techno -- didn't he describe the show as "a warning"? A warning to whom? It was almost too good, too dark, too weird to be true.
Then, before anyone could make sense of what they had just seen, an OMON K-9 was brought out and instructed to gently lift a cat by the neck. Huh? Dozens of fierce OMON demonstrate 100 ways to crush vertebrae and riddle motionless bodies with machine gun fire, followed by a dog and kitten show. What could it all possibly mean?
More importantly, would we be fed? Yes, but not yet. Next we were led into a large OMON gym transformed into an armory. Down the length of each baseline were tables full of The Weapons of OMON, enough guns to pacify the Sunni triangle: A dozen variations on the AK-47, shotguns, sniper rifles, greaser light machine guns, grenades, net guns -- everything. There were even a few sinister looking suitcases popped open to reveal launch and detonation mechanisms. OMON's duties range from breaking up protests in Moscow to waging counterinsurgency war in Chechnya, and the weapons display testified to this mission schizophrenia.
Liberal journalists are supposed to loathe guns and war. No doubt some do. But I suspect there is a 12-year-old commando inside even the likes of John Pilger who loves these beautiful little death machines. And there is nothing like a fully tricked-out Russian machine gun. Holding those OMON assault rifles swelled within me a strong if long dormant desire to "play guns," to run around outside and pretend to shoot people and be shot. This is a universal urge, like sex and breakfast. Just ask the global paintball industry.
Instead we were herded to the official press conference, held in an auditorium down the hall from the gym. The stage was dominated by a massive OMON flag displaying a Bison, the mascot of the force's most elite squad, the Zubr. Along the bottom ran the full motto: "OMON knows no mercy and forgives none. This is the way it is, was, and always will be."
How tough are you now, "Semper Fi"?
Under this two-line manifesto, stern-looking OMON brass prepared to face the international press for the first time. Also present was a Kremlin lawyer and the deputy minister of the interior, Mikhail Sukhodolsky. After the afternoon's show, I half expected to see Putin's friend Jean Claude Van Damme up there, too. Or maybe Dolf Lundgren doing his best Drago.
Sukhodolsky grew increasingly unnerved in response to a hostile line of questioning focused on charges of excessive brutality. Had the press conference been allowed to go on much longer, it looked like he might have blown a gasket. That, or charged the crowd and snapped somebody's neck, OMON-style. Perhaps someone sense this and the presser was brought to an abrupt close. It was time to eat.
Outside they had set up an old iron twin-bellied battlefield stove full of plov and kasha. A nearby military tent covered tables lined with plates of fruit, cold cuts, cheese, bread, and cookies. Not a great spread; not a bad one. It was better than anything a Russian conscript will ever see in uniform. I was afraid they might serve us some sort of "authentic" OMON gruel, or raw rabbit meat and steroids.
The OMON handlers didn't rush us, the servers were generous, and the Moscow press corps -- strangely quiet; cowed, or just very hungry? -- had its fill and then some. The oven and tent plates were picked clean when I went back for a third handful of cookies. Just crumbs and grape stems and tea stains on the table clothes.
Climbing into an empty bus, I found my ears still faintly ringing from all of the machine gun fire and concussion bombs. I was about to shut my eyes when the reporter from Xinhua news service sat down diagonally in front of me. He was wearing a loose kakhi suit and a China-Russia cooperation pin. I wanted to ask him if he thought a unit of China's special police could beat up a unit of Russia's special police. But he was already writing in his notebook and I decided not to bother him. Something told me he wouldn't have understood the question anyway.